Taking over from former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in March, was never going to be easy. Elected by a thin margin on April 14, Nicolas Maduro has had to tend to an economy in tatters, stand up to palace rivals, and crack down on bureaucrats on the take.
After several higher-ups were caught in June skimming sales of iron ore at the state-run mining giant, Ferrominera, Maduro asked the National Assembly to grant him emergency “enabling powers” to wage a national “war on corruption.”
But he hasn’t made things any easier for himself. Last week, during a raucous session in the National Assembly—where raucous sessions are the house norm—“Chavista” allies lashed out at opposition lawmakers in an attack that seemed excessive even by the attack-dog standards of the former Bolivarian commander in chief.
While television cameras rolled, Socialist Party deputy Pedro Carreño charged opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, a popular state governor, with condoning a ring of homosexual and transvestite prostitutes.
“Answer, homosexual!” Carreño declared, defying Capriles to disprove allegations that he was involved in “immoral acts,” which is Chavista code for gay. “Accept the challenge, faggot.”
Carreño sought to bolster the claims through supposedly compromising photographs and documents seized in a police raid on the home of Capriles’ chief of staff, Oscar López, whom he directly accused of running a prostitution racket. “What they [the opposition leaders] do with their own asses is their own business, but they need to be serious,” he snarled. “The problem is not his [Capriles’s] sexual orientation. The problem is leading a hidden life.”
“An eagle does not hunt flies,” Capriles replied. The supposedly damning photographs brandished by lawmakers showed Lopez, fully dressed, giving Latin-style bear hugs to men, apparently in a festive setting.
Lost on no one was the fact that Carreño’s attack followed a running clash with Capriles, who accused the pro-government legislator of having been forced into retirement from the armed forces allegedly for taking money from a cafeteria. Carreño denied the charge, saying his military service was public record.
As the row spilled into the Venezuelan news cycle, Maduro resorted to spin control to contain the damage. On Wednesday, the day after the tumultuous session in congress, he traveled to Petare, an outlying slum in greater Caracas, taking advantage of an event to inaugurate a funicular station to pose with advocates of a sexual-diversity-rights group. Putting his arms around one of the activists, he hoisted the movement’s rainbow-colored flag and struck a conciliatory note.
In comments transmitted live on national television, Maduro cooed: “Come, give me a hug,” After stating that he was a heterosexual and happily married, he added, “I am not homophobic. The revolution has vindicated respect for all.”
Then, with the cameras still rolling, he went on to repeat the allegations against Capriles and the national opposition, lamenting that the “office of the governor of Miranda has been used as a place for homosexual and transvestite prostitution.”
“We have proof,” Maduro claimed, alluding to the police raid on Lopez’s residence. “What was revealed by the National Assembly was just 1 percent of what we obtained.” The “other 99 percent,” he continued, “are unpublishable videos and photos of orgies.”
Opposition politicians denounced the government attack as a smear campaign and a smoke screen for the larger political scandals plaguing the Maduro government. “Maduro’s ‘war on corruption’ has shown its true colors: curb, humiliate and prosecute political opponents to demoralize their voters while trying to rally a discontented Chavista base around him,” wrote Gustavo Hernandez Acevedo in the opposition-leaning political blog, Caracas Chronicles.
Nor does the effort on the anticorruption front line appear to be winning hearts and minds on the Venezuelan street. A recent survey by pollster SIBCI showed that nearly 56 percent of Venezuelans believe the anticorruption measures are “inadequate,” while 52 percent say they are “a government strategy pretending to fight against corruption.”